Acclaimed author Gerald Haslam grew up in the blue-collar Kern County community of Oildale in the 1940's, a child of the Dust Bowl migration to California. He went to school with another boy with a similar background, a child named Merle Haggard.
After numerous run-ins with the law, and a stint in prison, Haggard went on to become perhaps the most acclaimed artist in the history of country music. But he never forgot his Oildale roots, or his friendship with Haggard. Haslam went on to write a definitive book about California county music, which borrowed its name from one of Haggard's songs, "Working Man Blues." Haslam joined us on Wednesday to talk about the death of Haggard, on what was the singer's 79th birthday.
What's your earliest recollection of Merle?
I don't know whether we started kindergarten or the first grade together. I do remember that by about the third grade, he was one of those kids who kind of stood out among your classmates. I remember quite vividly about when his father died probably about 1946, I think we were in the fourth grade, kids were whispering "Merle's daddy died, Merle's daddy died." And he was moping around, and at about that point he veered socially toward older kids and older pursuits. He was the first kid in class to smoke, or to smoke publicly. My recollection of him is that he was a smart kid, but that after about 1946 or 1947 he was extremely independent and basically did what he wanted to do and the way he could do it.
I don't remember him being a star singer. We had a music program at Standard School, and I don't remember him ever being singled out as a singer which tells you how smart we were. But I do remember he was one of the first kids in my age group who played the guitar and imitated popular country and western music and did it quite well by his standards.
Q: His run-ins with the law as a young man have been well documented. He went from being an outlaw to the toast of the town in a short period. How did the community come to embrace him and did it change the community's feelings towards those people who moved to the valley during the Dust Bowl?
First of all I was surprised at how many people didn't embrace him once he became a national star, I'm thinking of neighbors, people who said "that Haggard boy's a criminal." But yes once he became the symbol of accomplishment by so-called Dust Bowlers. He represented what was possible and what had been accomplished. It was sort of an anti-Joad message, an awful lot of people were resistant to that word Okie simply because it had been used so negatively. Haggard was very important in turning that around in popular thought, because he was proudly and openly a migrant. He used to joke about it. He made it ok to be called "Okie." And pretty soon you have this odd phenomenon of people who might not have any connection to the migration claiming to be "Okie" which was virtually unimaginable in 1940, but by 1950 it was not an uncommon thing.
Q: The theme of work, of labor, of blue collar work and of poverty is a constant in his work, dating back from his earliest recordings to the present day. How much did growing up in Oildale shape him?
I think it completely shaped him in most ways. He was part of a community in which work was sacred. His dad for example was a carpenter for the railroad, and my dad was a cager in the oilfields and work was sacred. These are people who came from the Southwest or the Midwest or in the South in desperate search for work. They had been raised in a society or a social level in which upward mobility was difficult. Most were from a class that settled for less than they were capable of because that was they were offered. Then suddenly you get to Oildale and you've got the opportunity in the oilfield and agriculture and there's at least some work some of the time for everybody it seemed. He honored those people for the hard work they did and for the hardship they endured so that people like him and me and any number of others we could mention could go to school or could try something different, he never let that go. He came to symbolize what is possible.